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Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Flick: John Bexon and Greene King's Five-X Vats

In Britain, "head brewer" is the term used for the master brewer, and in the larger ale breweries that usually means a man in loafers, not rubber boots. They oversee operations, head new product development, buy raw ingredients and so on--they don't haul grain sacks. The head brewer at Greene King over the past decade has been John Bexon, the man who took me on a tour of the brewery when I was there last month.

Despite some scorn locals heap on Greene King (too big, to acquisitive), it is one of the most traditional breweries in England, and to my American eyes, a real treasure of brewing history. The brewery recently spent 3 million pounds to replace old equipment, but unlike Adnams, decided to stick with old, quirky coppers. "We could have gone mash-filter, we could have gone lauter, but no, we said we’re staying with what we know. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Okay, we could have gotten a bit more efficiency by doing it, but I think you lose the authenticity." At a certain point in the last thirty years, every old brewery in Britain had to make a decision about whether and how to modernize, and they all answered the question a little differently.

Greene King went with tradition: an old tower brewery that does literally tower above the beautiful town of Bury St. Edmunds (see pictures below), beer is made much the same here as it has been for decades. One of the signature products--and one of the most important beers brewed in England--is Strong Suffolk Ale, sold in the US as Olde Suffolk. The beer is a part of living history, made by blending a young (mild) ale with vintage, 12% strong ale vatted two years on oak. This is a tradition that goes back centuries, but what makes Strong Suffolk important is that the vatted ale, called XXXXX, takes on the character of the wild yeasts that are resident in the wood of those old vats. Thankfully, more breweries are experimenting with wood-aged beer, but since Gale's has moved up to Fuller's, none from England have the continuity of using original oak vats like Greene King.

It's a remarkable product, one actually designated by the government by covenant--like Stilton cheese, which must be brewed in one of four counties--that can only be produced in Suffolk. Blended with between 10-17% old ale, Strong Suffolk has a malty base leavened with a vinous balsamic character. It's rich, warming, creamy, and elegant, like a Burgundy. If you can locate a bottle, you'll have a perfect winter ale to enjoy next to a roaring fire.

When we arrived at the vats, I asked John to stop and speak for a moment about them on video.

Some photos:

The view from atop Greene King over Bury St. Edmunds.

At Greene King, this counts as "push-button" brewing.

The mash tun.

Greene King has a campus of 44 acres, and subterranean pipes connect the brewery underneath Crown Street.

Square fermenters are common in British ale breweries--and are the norm at Greene King.

The tasting cellar.


  1. Perhaps Blogspot is eating comments again. There should be some chatter here because it's great stuff.

    The commitment Greene King has to traditional equipment and methods is fascinating. "Authenticity over efficiency." I like it.

  2. look Ive got alot of time for GK being one of my local breweries, but for all the effort they put in the brewing process, and GK IPA is one of the best beers in England IMO the problem is thats only true for pubs in Bury St Edmunds, elsewhere the majority of GK dispensing pubs dont have a clue how to keep beer and GK beer becomes a byword for pickling vinegar. thats why it attracts so much scorn

  3. Olde Suffolk is amazing. I'm glad they still take the time and effort to brew a real vatted ale. Really interesitng interview. Thanks for sharing it.